What do “those people” want anyway?


Suleiman I c.1530

Okay, probably planting soy beans in Tahrir Square is not the answer, maybe the situation in Egypt is slightly more complicated than that.  In fact that exactly is a criticism voiced by Al Jazeera recently – the network and its commentators are criticizing their western counterparts for being superficial, negative and almost racist. First Al Jazeera says that the west simply focuses on itself, and puts everything in terms of “what is best for me”; second, it says the west is framing the potential outcomes in terms of dictator or Islamic extremism, as if there was not other possibility; next, Al Jazeera commentators and interviewees accuse us of sitting on the sidelines waiting for some safe and secure way out of the current dilemma; and finally it says that when western television covers mass demonstrations in other countries, the camera and the commentary identifies with the people – a democratic expression of will – but in Egypt the camera sees and the commentators notice people unlike “us” dangerous, unstable and potentially violent masses of peoples – and should “those people” be allowed to vote the outcome would be counter to our interests and probably produce some horrific form of government.

Of course we know about Al Jazeera’s agenda from Bill O’Reilly; O’Reilly tells us that Al Jazeera makes its money with anti-American and anti-Israeli propaganda.  In all due respect Bill, I don’t agree; it may not be the best new source, but it is certainly a legitimate news source – worth watching or reading now and again to get a little deeper coverage and varying points of view.  Today, for example it broadcast an interview with the grandson of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Tariq Ramadan, he lives in the west because he is banned from Egypt and five other Arab countries, but he is a man that certainly knows the history of the movement.

Tariq Ramadan says what any serious observer would say, we don’t know which faction, and there are a number, of the Brotherhood would win in an internal party election; that the party was founded on anti-colonial and basic human rights concepts, not radical religious observances. And he like a number of other Egyptians, he is looking toward Turkey as a model for Egypt, not Iran, not the United States or any non-Muslim country. In the recent – post pharaoh, post Greek-Roman eras – and for much of its Muslim history, Egypt was heavily influenced and governed by Turkey; Turkey until the end of World War I was the center of Islam – the caliphate. Turkey was on the losing side and the entire Middle East, including all of what had been the Ottoman Empire,  was reconfigured by western diplomats – countries were created were none existed and existing political entities were ignored; one of those entities was Islam’s governing structure.  Many Egyptians still identify with Turkey, many are carrying Turkish genes and Turkish names – the recently appointed vice president is an example; he is Omar Suleiman; his family name is derived from Suleiman the Magnificent the16th century ruler of the Ottoman Empire.

Al Jazeera may have a point about western coverage, but I want to defend National Public Radio; NPR as I said earlier is working very hard to establish itself as an important source of news, including now frequent daily in depth discussions of sports and the Super Bowl.  But it is doing a much better job in Egypt – its coverage has moved passed talking heads, naive reporters personal opinions and quick pans of crowd scenes.  NPR is interviewing Egyptians at all levels of society – particularly informative for me have been the Egyptian Americans with families in Egypt. They talk about their families, what the families hope to see and the difficulties they are experiencing and they talk about their own views from the remote perspective of the United States. It is not that I have learned anything startling or radically different; however it has given me a chance to hear first hand about the plain citizens and their aspirations. There may be western media outlets – and there are – that do exactly as Al Jazeera says they do, but NPR is not one of them and it is doing a yeoman’s job of covering the events.

That was something else that Tariq Ramadan said on Al Jazeera; he says the events in Egypt are about ordinary people asking for basic human dignity and freedom, the right to participate in their own government and to participate fairly in the economy. Can anyone be against that?  He and others like him ask us not to hold back our support, not to wait for certainty and security, but to support “people” striving for the same rights we enjoy. I don’t know what I think would be best, but like watching two friends fighting and on the bridge of divorce, it isn’t my issue; I have to look to my principles for guidance.

Suleiman I attributed to school of Titian c.1530
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